Link to county’s moviemaking history exhumed
By Jamie Taylor, Merrill Courier
Back in 1975, a black hole opened up in Lincoln County, allowing giant spiders from another dimension to invade Wisconsin. Gleason and Merrill were all but destroyed before two intrepid NASA scientists found a way to defeat them.
If that little-known bit of county history is news to you, it is because you haven’t seen “The Giant Spider Invasion,” mad by Bill Rebane in 1975. Rebane’s Shooting Range studios off Hwy J between Irma and Gleason produced 12 films, mostly horror movies, between 1965 and 1987, according to the Internet Movie Database. Many used Tomahawk, Merrill and Gleason locales for outdoor locations.
Rebane’s films were not huge box office hits, but “invasion” earned enough in theaters to rank in the top 50 of films released that year. It has since gone on to become a cult classic, and is still available for purchase on DVD. Two of Rebane’s films, “The Giant Spider Invasion” and “Monster a Go-Go” were featured on TV’s “Mystery Science Theater 3000” which lampooned old movies and is itself a favorite of cult movie fans.
Forget stars Barbara Hale, best known as Della Street on “Perry Mason” and Alan Hale Jr., “Skipper” of “Gilligan’s Island” fame.
The real scene stealers were the giant spiders, built by Irma welder Carl PFantz, one on the chassis of a VW Bug. It was then covered with black Fun Fur and needed six kids in addition to the driver to make its legs move.
This one chased hundreds of extras through Gleason while another, non-motorized version climbed the side of buildings in downtown Merrill with the aid of a crane.
“The Giant Spider Invasion” was made the same year as “Jaws” and the mechanical spiders were Rebane’s attempt to answer the mechanical shark in that movie.
“We really didn’t tailor anything after “Jaws”. That was just happening simultaneously at that time. They had a slightly larger budget than we did,” he said.
He said they didn’t run into the problems Steven Spielberg did with his monster.
“The first attempt to do “Jaws” was somewhat of a failure. But Steven Spielberg had the backings of Universal Pictures so it didn’t mean anything to spend another $10 or 15 million to redo “Jaws”. Well we kind of chuckled when we were doing the spider film when we had a $300,000 budget wondering how to do an effect bigger than “Jaws” with a $10,000 effects budget.
The two spiders ate every bit of that budget up, he chuckled.
Now the spiders have returned, sort of.
When Rebane’s studio went out of business, a lot of the props from his movies ended up the property of what was then Lincoln County Bank. Anything of value was carted off; the rest was disposed of unceremoniously in the landfill.
Al Stremp rescued the motorized spider along with a lot of 35 mm prints and negatives of the movies. Somehow the other spider came into the possession of Derek Archer.
Stremp stored everything he could save in the woods surrounding his property, where they laid 24 more years.
“I kind of stumbled into it.” He said. “I talked to the guy and worked with him a few days, then went there and tried to save things so it wouldn’t go into a dumpster. Eventually I got a hold of a buddy of mine with a trailer and we were able to haul the spider out of there.”
He saved what he could but was too late to rescue “the really good stuffs” from the studio.
“I was kind of disappointed in that,” he said. “But that (the spider) kind of caught my eye and I looked at it and said ‘that needs to be saved.'”
Rebane said that he had a great relationship with then Lincoln County Bank, who loaned him the money for his films. Using the props and the movie negatives themselves as collateral. Given the farming and window industry basis for the local economy, he found that surprising.
“I found out just a few weeks ago that most distributors will take a copy of the negative of a whole film and keep it on their books for $150,000 to $400,000,” He said. “Think about it: with Turner Movie Classics there is a market for them and that was their collateral.”
He said the film cans that Stremp rescued were actual prints of some movies, which were worth between $12-$14,000 each.
“They sat out here in a field under a piece of plywood for 20 years until a film crew from Minneapolis discovered them while doing a documentary on me,” Rebane said.
He said while some of them were starting to deteriorate, they would still bring a few hundred thousand dollars n eBay to film collectors.
The frame of Archer’s spider is now being restored by Kris Hill and Lori Stine, owners of The Living Room in Gleason. Their plan is to have the spider climbing over some boulders as if it were attacking the highway.
Right now the challenge is finding something to cover the framework that is more weather resistant than the Fun Fur that originally served as the skin, Hill said.
“We’ve discussed a lot of things: artist canvas, some kind of latex we could poke through to make it look like hair,” she said. “It has to be permanent, it has to be weather proof and look real. So we’re going to try a few things, wrap it up and see what looks best. We’re going to make it look as real as possible with the eight eyes and fangs.”
The community is discussing fund-raising options to support the restoration and buildings of the display. Hill said the project will be a chance to lay claim to Gleason’s moviemaking past. They would like to have the bulk of the project completed by Labor Day, she said.
“It really is a part of our history,” she said. “A lot of people grew up and as little kids they were running through the ball field to get away from the spider,” she said.
Rebane has been fully supportive of the plan: he even made a new set of fangs to help in the effort.
“If it means getting more tourism into Lincoln County and more people stopping by, fans, curiosity seekers, whatever, I think it’s good for it.” Rebane said.
The second spider was removed from the woods Sunday, and will make an appearance in the Fourth of July Parade in “Tomahawk. It will probably not be returned to its “former glory.”
“I’m thinking of putting it up on eBay.” Rebane said. “A distributor for a new Director’s Cut version of “The Giant Spider Invasion,” which is coming out at the end of this summer, thought it should be put up on eBay with a price of $500,000, buy it now.”
If the prop sells for anywhere near that, it would bring in more than the movie cost to make, he said. There is a big collectors market for props from movies that are considered cult classics, so there just may be a well-heeled fan of the movie out there with an urge to dig into his bank account.
There has also been some discussion of doing a sequel to “the Giant Spider Invasion.”
“We have been discussing with a Milwaukee studio to do a sequel and we are debating if that is the right thing to do, if it would do justice to it. And we’re talking a pretty big budget, if I had my way of doing it,” Rebane said. “We’re also talking of doing a take-off on the original called “The Giant Spider Invasion Musical.”
He said if a sequel is made, this time the monsters would be computer generated and more numerous, which is what would drive up the budget of a new movie.
“I sure as heck wouldn’t want to do a VW spider situation again,” he said. “That shouldn’t be repeated although that was some of the reason for its popularity. A lot of people had to chuckle.”
He said the low-tech special effects even earned a nod of sorts from the Master of Horror, Stephen King in his novel “Dance Macabre.”
“He said he didn’t feel cheated because the spider was a real dilly, an admirable effect,” Rebane said.
He said it had been suggested by a few local fans of the movie that King be invited to a film festival to be held during Crazy Days this year.
“Who knows, anything is possible in today’s world,” he said.
In addition to “Invasion,” those attending the film festival Aug. 6 at the Cosmo Theater during Crazy Days will also get a chance to see Rebane’s 1987 film “Twister’s Revenge.”
“That’s the one that kind of destroyed Merrill and Gleason with a lot of explosions and a monster truck,” he laughed.
Bill Dexter was the man Rebane thanks for generating the interest in locating the two old spiders and bringing them back to life.
“He organized it all,” Rebane said. “We talked about it and I said ‘but how are we going to get it out?’ and he said ‘don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it.’ And he did.”
Dexter, who also was a local film maker, is helping organize the film festival although he credits Tom Burg with the initial idea.
“Tom Burg and I were talking about doing something for Crazy Days and Tom said we should have a film fest. I thought it was a good idea, I knew Bill and could get a hold of him,” Dexter said.
Dexter appeared in three of Rebane’s movies as an actor and the bar in Gleason he used to own, The Village Tap, also served as a location in them.
He said with the recent interest in Wisconsin becoming a Mecca for filmmaking because of tax breaks, it is important to remember the heyday of the 70s and 80s when the state had its homegrown movie makers.
“We had this back ’75; Lincoln County had it,” he said.
Rebane said that the ease in which anyone can make a film on video with consumer quality cameras and computer software is making people forget how hard movie making was in his day.
“You had to be a seasoned filmmaker to put something together,” he said. “That’s how you get an appreciation of what it was all about and how difficult it was to do things.”
Born in Latvia, he originally had a studio in Germany before he moved to the United States. He worked on many European movies in various capacities while learning the trade. His wooden tripod is on link to that past he still owns. On many of his movies he wore many hats in addition to director. He often ran the camera, did the editing and even had a hand in the music and writing of the screenplays.
Rebane is still very much involved in making movies, although his days of commanding huge arachnids or other monsters are long past.
“I do a lot of consulting work in the motion picture industry,” he said. “I also love to make documentaries.”
He has also written two novels, which can be purchased through www.explorationmediacorporation.com , as can several of his movies. “The Giant Spider Invasion” can be purchased for $14.95 or, for $5 more; you can have a signed copy.
As for the plans for a sequel, Rebane is for it, if the budget to do it right can be raised. In fact, you could see the wheels moving in the old filmmaker’s head as the frame for the second spider was pulled from the woods Sunday. Where it once sat, he tossed a couple of cantaloupes and he filmed them briefly with his camera.
“Eggs,” he said with a smile.